The New Left’s Search for Religion

image from Midjourney, my own prompt

With the world hurtling into full-on economic and ecological collapse, it is hard to find something — anything — to believe in, to trust, or to accept ‘on faith’. Those on the left, most of whom are no longer in denial of the crises facing us, have spent most of the last 50 years defining themselves for what they don’t believe in — obscene wealth and power inequality, endless war, unregulated, corrupt, untrammelled capitalism, climate disaster, and the oppression of women, BIPOC, the poor and the sick, and so on.

They don’t, any longer, believe in even the possibility of a multipolar peaceful world, universal health care, or free, quality education for all. Though that still comes as a bit of a shock when Bernie Sanders admits it.

They are defined, in short, by what they are against, rather than what they stand for. The right has been unintentionally brilliant in maneuvering them into that cramped, awkward place, but that’s where they are.

We are hence devoid of leaders who can articulate beliefs and programs that are positive, progressive, that supporters can get behind, champion, celebrate, and offer to the jaded among us.

So now in our political arenas we have what Hank Green calls “performative governance” — parties and ‘leaders’ who smile at the cameras, speak carefully crafted words that mean nothing, and then turn away and hand actual governance, and the determination of what money will be spent on, over to the intelligence agencies, special interest groups, and corporate lobbyists who now write many of the laws for ‘their’ politicians to sign.

As Aurélien puts it: ” [Neo]liberal political theory sees elections as a form of competition between professional teams to present the best formula for running the country, after which one will be awarded an exclusive contract.” Many on the right have the same perception. But unlike theoretical party platforms and performances, the differences in terms of what actually happens in government are so minuscule that neither side need be particularly fussed about which team performs best; there are plenty of lucrative positions in the revolving doors of private industry for the ‘losers’.

Sadly, the new left is lacking in both courage and imagination, so this situation is likely to get even worse. They are lacking courage because they, unlike the right, don’t want to offend anyone. They fear it will cost them voters and supporters if they say anything that the atomized identity-fixated populace doesn’t like or doesn’t agree with. Or if they talk about anything too gloomy, like the inevitability of collapse. Their performances, therefore, are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. And eventually, the rants against everything get tiring, not inspiring. We might not doubt their sincerity (though we might doubt that too), but we certainly doubt that they will (be able to) act on their words. The actor’s job, after all, ends when the curtain on the stage goes down. It’s all about the applause, and selling more tickets for the next show.

They — the new left — are lacking imagination because, well, we are all lacking imagination these days. As I’ve written before, levels of innovation are at a 40-year low. There are, essentially, almost no good new ideas out there. The new left has been so busy reacting to the performances of the right (which range from the sublime to the ridiculous) that they simply no longer think about anything else. For the last 40 years, we have basically had no practice whatsoever thinking creatively. The western film, music, and other ‘creative’ industries are all retreads, sequels, re-releases, and ‘reality’ shows. Games require no imagination whatsoever, just reaction and appreciation for the graphics. Business and professional practices have become formulaic, without rewards or room for ingenuity.

So instead, in the absence of courage, honesty, imagination, and new ideas, some of the ‘thought leaders’ of the new left are looking to hang their hat on a new religion of the left, one that will galvanize and inspire their disenchanted and indifferent ‘supporters’ with its shared vision, hope, and promise.

In this, they presume (incorrectly) that the right has the supporters of the ‘old religions’ in their pocket. But citizens now say, for the first time ever, that religion is less important to them than money. And studies (like this one done in Louisiana) suggest that, while the right is entertained by the preachers in the pulpits and in the houses of state and on Faux News, and like their spirit, they don’t particularly buy a lot of what they are advocating or claiming is true, any more than leftists still believe what Bernie or AOC or other token principled leftists are saying to be more than empty wishful words.

For those on the right, it is their peer group, which is a lot less fragmented than the leftists’, which determines what they believe and vote for, and that is based more on actual conversations and shared activities than on the crap they see and hear on their screens.

What presumably the new left is looking for in a new religion is something they all can believe in — some bedrock things that differentiate them from the right and which will rally them to vote and to act in support of and in pursuit of the realization of those beliefs. Something positive. Something that is beyond question, a matter of absolute faith.

The problem, of course, is that no such thing exists… anywhere on the political spectrum. The right may use words like ‘god’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘individual rights’ as convenient placeholders or catchphrases, but there is absolutely no consensus among the right as to what those words actually mean. The equivalent phrases used by the left, like ‘fairness’ and ‘justice’ are even more etherial and subjective, and often laced with ‘blame-y-ness’ that morphs them into their negatives (they’re usually about unfairness, and injustice). Our beliefs are complex and nuanced.

Advocates of a new left religion also say that this new progressive faith needs rituals. But rituals are about reaffirming connection and affiliation, and it is the right, not the left, that has a stronger sense of community. Rituals reflect connection; they don’t create it.

And also, leftists tend to be idea people, and attracted to new ideas and questioning and challenging what they are told. The very idea of religions and blind faith in ‘ordained’ ideas and principles is to some extent inherently anathema to progressives.

So (I was going to say “god help us”), I think the last thing that leftists need is a new religion, a new worldview, or a new universally-acceptable set of beliefs.

Instead, what I sense leftists really would find valuable and galvanizing is the much more difficult project of giving up entirely on the existing political process and its systems, labels and (mis)alignments, and instead embracing a pragmatic learning about how we can become more adaptable.

What do I mean by this? I think there’s been a quiet admission, in the minds of many on the left, of the fundamental non-viability of long-held liberal ideals about the universal, centralized, standardized provision of essential services. While these were once feasible projects, at least in affluent nations, I think it’s inevitable that with global economic collapse looming, governments will (within a decade or so) mostly become insolvent and incapable of doing much of anything. To wait for that to happen is, IMO, to cling to a failing model, and a waste of time.

There have been some proposals put forward recently (more on this in an upcoming article about Roger Hallam) that, in order to anticipate the collapse of governance, and to respond to its incapacity to address the crises of our time, we should look to set up our own parallel governance groups (perhaps using the citizens’ assembly model) which can both agitate for change and mobilize resistance to the existing governance structures when they fail to do what is needed, and which can also replace those old-style governments quickly when they collapse.

I find this model intriguing (it’s one of the few fresh new ideas out there), and it avoids rehashing old political models that haven’t worked. It’s agnostic with respect to the traditional political spectrum — anyone unhappy with the existing dysfunctional system can participate. Its defining quality is that it is unapologetically democratic. It presumes that we’re smarter and more competent, collectively, than ‘representative’ governments can ever practicably be.

Whether it works or not (and, let’s face it, anything radically new at this late date might well not work), it’s almost assuredly not enough.

I’ve written before about what I think is entailed in being adaptable — acknowledging the inevitability of collapse and being open to learning new skills and capacities that will help us day-to-day as economic and ecological collapse accelerates. But there may be some experiments we could explore to increase our readiness collectively to deal with the worst aspects of collapse.

Here are three examples of this I’ve heard about recently:

  1. The idea that as collapse begins to overwhelm us, ‘resecularized’ churches (and perhaps schools) could serve (of course, some already do so) as essential service providers. The new term for these is Lifehouses, defined as “distributed community support centres for the Long Emergency”. The idea in a nutshell: “Fitting them out as decentralized shelters for the unhoused, storehouses for emergency food stocks (rotated through an attached food bank), heating and cooling centers for the physically vulnerable, and distributed water-purification, power-generation and urban-agriculture sites capable of supporting the neighborhood around them when the ordinary sources of supply are unreliable.”
  2. The idea that the processes used in the Basque area of Spain, that network and coordinate the work of many small autonomous (mostly home-based) production facilities, instead of relying on massive, centralized production facilities that won’t survive economic collapse, might be the best post-collapse way to get essential goods produced in a region effectively.
  3. The idea of creating (and again, networking) autonomous federations of communities, instead of trying to manage large, unwieldy centralized states — this was the principal model by which many widely-scattered First Nations peoples self-organized and cooperated historically, and it is apparently being used today in the Rojava region of (war-torn) Kurdish Syria.

My sense is that new, flexible infrastructures like these will inevitably replace the current models as collapse advances. But there’s no harm in trying them out now, as they could coexist quite well with the current models.

So, no more religions, please. Instead, let’s have some new ideas on how to adapt to inevitable collapse, that we can test and tweak to help us going forward, and which will have value, even today.

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4 Responses to The New Left’s Search for Religion

  1. Michael Dowd says:

    Excellent, Dave…
    And thanks for alerting me to the Lifehouses model yesterday!
    ~ Michael

  2. Dollyboy says:

    That would be a very worthwhile endeavour. I’m not convinced we could galvanise enough people around the concept. Most folk are in total denial about our forthcoming woes. But I love the idea of it.

  3. glyn rowlands says:

    I’d heard that Midjourney wasn’t good with hands and it’s true. Father Bernie has six fingers ;)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Midjourney has a lot of problems putting things in context. Especially in pictures of groups, it’s not uncommon for some of them to have three hands or legs. And if you ask it to show two different animals in the same image, it is often clueless on the relative scale, and the cat will be the same size as the horse.

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